Live Review: Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas Show @ Neptune Theatre 12/8/12

all photos by Brittany Brassell

Sufjan Stevens has been writing heartfelt, provocative Christmas music for 10 years now. Each year, he completes a “volume” with a different theme or direction. All of these volumes have been conveniently collected for fans into the Songs for Christmas and Silver and Gold album collections, which hold volumes 1-5 and 6-10 respectively. But in all that time, Stevens has had plenty else to keep him busy. Whether its the banjo-driven soulful folk music of albums like Seven Swans or the spastic electronic rhapsody of Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens does not mess around. But this year, he may be giving fans the ultimate treat by venturing out on the road right before the holidays to present this Christmas-centric choose-your-own-adventure meltdown that only he could conjure up. Officially titled the Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice, not one of those descriptors was lost Saturday night. Stevens showed fans a zany party full of Christmas cheer with an appropriate balance of yuletide jollies and nostalgic Sufjan throwbacks.

Opening the night was Sheila Saputo, the totally bonkers comedy alias of Asthmatic Kitty collaborator Rosie Thomas. As can be expected from the zany promo she cultivated for Silver and Gold a couple weeks ago, Sheila did her thing and got plenty of laughs for it, talking about her usual klutz antics and how “CAROLS” can form a helpful acronym for various holiday festivities.

Stevens’ production made for a well-rounded and elaborate night of fun. While he no doubt had plenty of material to draw from between the 10 volumes of Christmas tunes he’s amassed (altogether over 100 songs), he mixed things up and kept it all fresh between band jamouts, audience sing-a-longs, and older Sufjan material. The new Christmas tunes sounded excellent. His take on Christmas classic “Do You See What I See?” was a dizzying, Age of Adz-esque variation on a theme, bouncing this way and that, changing keys and structures faster than the audience could keep track of. The punk rock throw down “Mr. Frosty Man” and the ridiculous experimental jam band silliness of “Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling” thrived on stage in a more interactive context. On the other hand, the cold, contemplative “Justice Delivers Its Death” brought noise in the room to a whisper with its complex message and gorgeous arrangement. But after every couple of tunes, Sufjan would make a 180 and tell his lovely assistant in the back to spin the “WHEEL! …OF! …CHRISTMAS!!!” to pick the next carol for everyone to sing together. As you can see from the pictures, the art of the wheel of Christmas matched Stevens’ kooky, imaginative vision of the holidays, with “Slay Ride” looking like a bloody dagger, a spinning pink baby unicorn, and other weirdness. Even with the carols, Stevens didn’t default to simplified arrangements or even the typical song structure. He turned one tune into a stomp and clap shouting contest and ended “Joy to the World” with a wink and a nod towards Age of Adz tune “Impossible Soul”.

Occasionally, Stevens would say “Alright, I think we’ve earned a break from Christmas” and the room would go dead silent as he turned and picked up a banjo. In these quiet moments he pulled from older material, including Michigan classics “Vito’s Ordination Song” and “For the Widows in Paradise…”. He pulled out similar throwbacks for his encore, which included the timeless “To Be Alone With You” and haunting Illinois cuts “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” and “Concerning the UFO…”. But these couple tunes made up the only somber moments of the night. The highlights were no doubt the most extravagant points, including the sprawling 12 minute “Christmas Unicorn” which builds to a climax in the Joy Division masterpiece “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Ending the night, Stevens also pulled out the song which no doubt brought many to Sufjan in the first place, “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”. Stevens’ Christmas pageant was no doubt a bit of fan service, but after spending so much time watching this titan of recent indie rock history mess with holiday tunes, it was a blast to see him bring it all to the stage for one night of ultimate holiday overload.

Check out more photos below and listen to Silver & Gold now.

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  1. sam
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    GREAT review! I am excited to see him in Chicago – would you mind commenting on what time he went on and what time the show ended?

    I’m up against a late flight and want to figure out how much time (if any) i’ll have to miss of the show – our show, doors open at 7, show time on tickets says 830 – any insight would be truly appreciated!

  2. Kevin
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Sam>> I’m gonna be at the Chicago show too and my sister was at the show in Dallas a couple weeks ago which had the same start time. She said the opening comedy act came on close to 8:30 with Sufjan coming on around 9:15 and he went for about two hours including an encore. She left the venue at about 11:15. Hope this helps and hope you don’t have to miss any of the show.

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